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They spread chopped ice across the floor of a bin. The men on deck carefully lowered albacore — largest ones first — down a wooden chute. Men below, working on hands and knees, nestled each into the ice. When a tier was complete, they shoveled a layer of ice over it. Then more fish, one at a time, and more ice.

The crew was careful to alternate between the port and starboard bins. Too much weight on one could tilt the boat at a dangerous angle. The process, layering and icing tons of fish, took hours.

“When fish are running, you get very little sleep,” says Zolezzi. “The crew’d be so exhausted they’d hit the bunk with their clothes on and conk out. During the run, they averaged three, at most four, hours’ sleep.”

At 5:00 a.m., they’d wake up, dip their hands in water to wake them up, and be back on the racks.

H.C. Godsil, an expert on the tuna industry, wrote that “Spirits rise in proportion to the catch.” But very few runs last more than a day, even fewer up to three. On the fourth day, the crews’ spirits were willing, but their bodies felt as if they’d just played three football games in a row, without pads. They dragged themselves to the racks at 5:00 a.m. As if on cue, the silver horde amassed below.

Each man tugged a pole, raised yet another fish, and flung it over his right shoulder, now more on instinct than conscious intent. Within hours, the hold was full: 65 tons of albacore, over 1300 fish.

“That’s it,” Zolezzi shouted. “Time to head home.”

No one said a word. “They just climbed up to the rail and smiled, gave each other a good grin.”

But the school beneath the Lone Wolf didn’t move.

“We called another boat,” says Zolezzi. “Said, ‘Come here, take it!’ And guess what? They filled up, too!”

Back in San Diego, Zolezzi unloaded the catch at the High Seas Cannery at Point Loma. As the crew cleaned the boat, he put in orders for provisions, ice, and fuel. The Lone Wolf cleared Point Loma “asap — fish’ll only run for so long.”

Looking back 59 years, Zolezzi says, “It was the trip of a lifetime. I’m sure it happened to other guys, but only once to me. Later on, we tried some things that worked that time” — Zolezzi laughs loud and long — “and nothing happened!”

QUOTATIONS:

  • 1. Michael K. Orbach: “Almost everything about tuna fishing is dangerous.”
  • 2. H.C. Godsil: “Tuna fishing is not as a rule continuous. It occurs in spurts of relatively short duration."
  • 3. Leonard Ingrande: “You could come across a real large school of fish, and they might bite from sunrise to sunset.”

SOURCES:

  • Godsil, H.C., “The High Seas Tuna Fishery of California,” Division of Fish and Game of California, Bureau of Marine Fisheries, Fish Bulletin No. 51.
  • Ladwig, Kit, “The Invisible Fleet,” San Diego Executive, June 1993.
  • Orbach, Michael, Hunters, Seamen, and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego, Berkeley, 1977.
  • Zolezzi, Julius H., and Bradley, Lawrence D., Jr., “The Story of the San Diego Tuna Fleet,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, vol. 44, numbers 1 and 2; Zolezzi, interview.

Next time: Beauty Goin’ Down

Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | 2: Let's catch us some tuna! | 4: Beauty goin down

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Comments

Twister Feb. 1, 2013 @ 2:20 p.m.

Man, keep 'em comin'! I hate to puff you up, but you are one helluva writer. If you want to get these interviews on video, I have a Panasonic AG100A and some good mics, lights, etc.

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